Sustainable management of foxtail meadows through hay making at seed maturity

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16th IFOAM Organic World Congress, Modena, Italy, June 16-20, 2008
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Sustainable management of foxtail meadows through hay making at seed maturity

Huguenin-Elie, O.1, Stutz, C.J. 1, Gago, R.2 & Lüscher, A.1

Key words: grassland management, meadow foxtail, Alopecurus pratensis, self-reseeding, botanical composition


Harvesting meadows at early heading of the grasses yields large quantities of high quality forage but might in the long term cause the swards to deteriorate due to the lack of formation of mature seeds. We studied 4 cutting regimes on a foxtail meadow to define which would maintain the foxtail population naturally and is acceptable in terms of forage quality. The 1st cut of the different cutting regimes was done either at early shooting, shooting, early heading or seed maturity of Alopecurus pratensis L.. The 2nd cut of the 3 first treatments was simultaneous to the 1st cut of the 4th treatment and was ground dried to allow the seeds to fall on the soil. When the meadow was harvested regularly at early heading of A. pratensis, its botanical composition deteriorated within 5 years and its yield decreased. With a 1st cut at seed maturity, A. pratensis produced the most seeds and its proportion in the sward increased, but the forage had the lowest quality. In the treatments with the 1st cut at early shooting or at shooting, A. pratensis produced significant quantities of seeds during the 2nd regrowth, maintained its population and forage of intermediate quality was produced. Sustainable production of quality forage on intensive foxtail meadows might be achieved by periodically having the 1st cut at shooting and using the second regrowth at seed maturity for ground dried hay.


In order to harvest large quantities of high quality forage, the first cut of intensively used meadows is usually carried out when the inflorescence of the main grass species is emerging. This cutting regime neither allows the grasses to produce seeds, nor triggers their tillering (Gillet, M., 1980), and therefore may cause a considerable decrease in the proportion of forage grasses in the sward in the long term. The disappearance of good forage grasses can be avoided by regular overseeding with commercial seeds, but organically produced seeds of adapted genotypes are not always available. This is especially true for species that are not very widely grown like meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis L.). On the other hand, meadow foxtail is a very interesting grass species for growing conditions unfavourable to ryegrass species. This study aimed to define a sustainable intensive management of foxtail meadows allowing the grass to produce seeds with a minimum loss of forage quality.

Materials and methods

Four cutting regimes were applied over 5 years to an intensive permanent meadow with about 40 % initial yield proportion of A. pratensis. The cutting regimes differed from each other by the date of the 1st cut, which was either at early shooting (ESh), shooting (Sh), early heading (EHe) or seed maturity (SMa) of A. pratensis. The 2nd cut of ESh, Sh and EHe was simultaneous to the 1st cut of SMa, allowing plants of A. pratensis to reach seed maturity in ESh and Sh. The 15 m2 permanent plots were harvested 6 times per year in ESh, Sh and EHe and 5 times in SMa. At the 2nd cut (1st cut of SMa) the forage was ground dried on each plot and the number of seeds falling on the soil during hay making assessed by placing 4 Petri dishes 8.5 cm in diameter in the soil. The botanical composition of the plots was estimated yearly in May according to Dietl (1995), modified to 12 yield proportion classes. The energy value (MJ NEL kg-1 DM) of the forage (200 g subsamples) was evaluated based on the digestibility of organic matter according to Tilley and Terry (1963). The plots were arranged in a randomized complete block design with 4 replicates. Differences between treatments are shown as the results of the combined ANOVA over the years 1 to 5 for the number of seeds produced (after square-root transformation of the data) and as the results of ANOVAs on the year 1 or year 5 data for the yield and the proportion of A. pratensis.


In SMa the average quantity of A. pratensis seeds that fell on the soil was 31 kg ha-1 yr-1 (Tab. 1), with large differences between the years (from 7 to 66 kg ha-1). The quantity of matured seeds of A. pratensis produced in ESh and Sh reached 29 to 60 %, and 15 to 63 %, of the seed quantity produced in SMa respectively (Fig. 1A). Only very few seeds were produced in EHe. From the 1st to the 5th experimental year, the yield proportion of A. pratensis strongly increased in SMa, was maintained in ESh and Sh, and strongly decreased in EHe (Fig. 1B). In EHe, the decrease in A. pratensis was compensated by an increase in the proportion of Poa trivialis L. and Taraxacum officinale agg., which are low yielding species. Correspondingly, the annual dry matter yield of the EHe treatment was 12.8 t ha-1 in year 1 but decreased to only 10.2 t ha-1 in year 5 (Tab. 1). This trend of decreasing yield was not observed in the other cutting regimes. The annual yield in ESh and SMa was therefore lower than in EHe in year 1, but was higher in year 5 (Fig. 1C). The energy value of the forage harvested at the 1st cut was lower in EHe than in ESh and Sh (Fig. 1D). By the 2nd cut (1st cut in SMa), the energy value of the forage was lowest in SMa and highest in EHe. From the 3rd cut onwards, no difference in energy value was observed between the treatments.


When harvested every year at early heading, the population of A. pratensis was not able to regenerate itself with seedlings and its proportion in the meadow strongly declined. A. pratensis can also propagate vegetatively by short stolons, but because apical dominance is strong at heading (Murphy & Briske, 1992), cutting at this stage is probably also unfavourable to stolon formation. Consequently, the botanical composition of the sward deteriorated within 5 years and the yield decreased. This cutting regime should therefore be modified to sustain the population of A. pratensis in order to avoid problems with undesired plant species, which once established, are very difficult to control in organic farming. The population of A. pratensis was promoted by a 1st cut at seed maturity, when the plants could produce the most seeds. This indicates that reproduction by seeds is an important process for A. pratensis populations. But this cutting regime yielded the forage with the lowest quality and lodging was a problem for the very late harvest of this nutrient-rich meadow. In the two cutting regimes with a very early 1st cut and a late 2nd cut (ESh and Sh), the lower seed production than in SMa shows that many of the apexes were removed at the 1st cut. Nevertheless, A. pratensis still produced significant quantities of matured seeds and was able to maintain its population in the meadow. Under these two cutting regimes, P. trivialis and T. officinale were not able to increase their population and the total yield of the sward was maintained.

Figure 1: A) Production of A. pratensis seeds in the different cutting regimes from the 1st to the 5th experimental year (yr 1 to yr 5) given in percent of the seed quantity produced in SMa, B) Botanical composition of the sward in May, in yr 1 and after 5 years of differing cutting regime, C) Evolution of the annual yield from yr 1 to yr 5 given in percent of the yield in EHe, D) Energy value of the forage at each cut of yr 5 for the different cutting regimes. ESh = 1st cut at early shooting, Sh = 1st cut at shooting, EHe = 1st cut at early heading, SMa = 1st cut at seed maturity, A. prat. = Alopecurus pratensis, grass = other forage grass species, P. triv. = Poa trivialis, legume = legume species, T. offi. = Taraxacum officinale, forb = other forb species. Error bars = averaged s.e.m (n = 4; in A) given in % of mean of SMa).

Tab. 1: Quantity of Alopecurus pratensis seeds produced, yield and proportion of A. pratensis (A. prat.) in the sward in the different cutting regimes. In a column, the means followed by a common letter are not significantly different at the 5% level by LSD.


(kg ha-1 yr-1)


(t DM ha-1 yr-1)

A. prat.


Cutting regimes

Mean yr 1 to 5

yr 1

yr 5

yr 5

1st cut at early shooting (ESh)

16 b

11.1 a

11.3 b

50 b

1st cut at shooting (Sh)

10 b

11.1 a

10.8 ab

45 b

1st cut at early heading (EHe)

1 a

12.8 b

10.2 a

26 a

1st cut at seed maturity (SMa)

31 c

10.3 a

11.4 b

67 c

In ESh and Sh, energy rich forage was harvested at the 1st cut and the energy value of the forage harvested at seed maturity (2nd cut for ESh and Sh and 1st cut for SMa) was better than in SMa. ESh and Sh therefore allowed a considerable reduction in forage quality losses compared to SMa. Moreover, it reduced the problem of lodging. Because individual grass plants live for many years (Treshow M. & Harper K., 1974), yearly seed production is probably unnecessary. To periodically change from a 1st cut at early heading to a 1st utilisation at shooting followed by a 2nd cut at seed maturity might therefore be a good compromise in achieving a sustainable production of forage with satisfactory quality on foxtail meadows.


Harvesting foxtail meadows every year at early heading of A. pratensis leads to an increasing proportion of undesired plant species and a decreasing yield. Sustainable management of foxtail meadows can be achieved by allowing the formation of mature A. pratensis seeds. An early first utilisation at the shooting stage of A. pratensis followed by a second cut at seed maturity with ground drying of the forage can fulfil this requirement with a minimum loss in average forage quality.


Dietl W. (1995): Wandel der Wiesenvegetation im Schweizer Mittelland. Zeitschrift für Ökologie und Naturschutz 4: 239-249.

Gillet M. (1980): Les graminées fourragères. Description, fonctionnement, applications à la culture de l’herbe. Bordas, Paris, 306 p.

Murphy J. S., Briske D. D. (1992): Regulation of tillering by apical dominance – chronology, interpretive value, and current perspectives. Journal of Range Management 45: 419-429.

Tilley J. M. A., Terry R. A. (1963): A two stage technique for the in vitro digestion of forage crops. Journal of the British Grassland Society 18: 104-111.

Treshow M., Harper K. (1974): Longevity of perennial forbs and grasses. Oikos 25: 93-96.

1 Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station ART, Reckenholzstrasse 191, CH-8046 Zurich, Switzerland, E-Mail, Internet

2 AGFF, Swiss Grassland Society, Reckenholzstrasse 191, CH-8046 Zurich, Switzerland, Internet

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